For all the comparisons between 2010 and 1994 or even 1982, the correct comparison may be to 1854. The fascination with third-parties is longstanding, but the U.S. has always been a two-party system. Political scientists from Anthony Downs onward will tell you that the two-party dominance is largely driven by our electoral system: when the vote is majority-take-all, parties move towards the center to gain votes, leaving little room for a new party to emerge. And while third-parties have had some limited success throughout the years, not since the emergence of the Republican party in 1854 did these parties ever gain sustained national prominence.
But is the time right now? There is significant unhappiness with both of the parties, and the public are especially supportive of a third party option, more so than in recent years. Youth who flocked to the Democratic party during the “Obama election” of 2008 are less likely to self-identify as Democrats. Finally, the Tea Party’s successes in Republican primaries may be indicative of the receptiveness of voters for a different option.
So what can we learn from 1854? The original Republican party’s success came about when they brought a new issue to the front of the agenda that both parties were ignoring: the expansion of slavery. In 2010, the ignored issue seems to be financial restraint. Democrats’ faith in government’s ability to solve problems – such as their stance on health care or cap-and-trade would indicate – makes it difficult for them to realistically cut spending, although they have been trying and Clinton helped proved they can reduce the deficit. And Republicans’ firm stance on tax cuts for everyone, which almost all economists believe will expand our national debt, makes their claim to financial austerity laughable.
So if the Tea Party renounces some of their extreme elements (a la Christine O’Donnell) and focuses on this issue of the debt, I think they have the potential to prove influential for many years to come. People are angry about the state of the economy and unhappy with both parties on this issue. And while financial restraint may not be a “sexy” topic, I think politicians can make it so and are trying to do so by talking about the effects on our children. So will 2010 be remembered as the 1854 of the Tea Party? It remains to be seen, but the potential is there.